Culture is, among other things, the power of legitimate naming. Or so says James Hunter, sociologist of culture at the University of Virginia. Makes sense to me. In his book To Change the World, he notes that culture change is most enduring when it penetrates the structure of our imagination, our frameworks of discussion, and our perceptions of everyday reality.
This became evident to me the other day when, while on Facebook, I noticed that a kid (age 10 or so, I think) whom I once knew was a Facebook “friend” of a “friend” of mine. I don’t think I have “friends” that are kids, and so the sociologist in me quickly wondered what kids do and say on Facebook, and how is it different from what adults do and say. So I took a look. The first thing I noticed was that another friend of this child was someone I had also once known (as their basketball coach). I took a look at his profile and wall. It was noted there that he had recently changed his status from “in a relationship” to “single.”
That struck me as odd, and rather adult-like. Which of course it is, because Facebook apparently doesn’t use old-fashioned kid terms like “going with” to describe childhood romances. (Never mind the “going where” questions…). And it hammered home to me the reality that, as children uptake Facebook, that the latter will have a great deal of say over the terms—and more importantly, the ideas and norms and expectations behind the terms—in which youth describe lots of things.
Facebook has—via our active participation and ample passivity—done exactly that in the domain of relationships. But I don’t really think of a 12-year-old as “single.” (Do you?) I have historically thought of singles as unmarried persons. Now apparently singles are persons who are not “in a relationship.” I am in a relationship, for the record. At least Facebook allows me to say that I’m married. Imagine the hullaballoo if FB were to drop the married status and simply use “in a relationship.” But imagine if they stuck to their guns about it. FB has real power in cultural naming, and with it legitimation. Far too much, to be sure.
I am not actually problematizing the relationship play of kids. Been there done that, didn’t come away from it warped or traumatized. But when you imprint adult-like statuses on children, the latter come to seem and act more like the former (and arguably vice versa). But with Facebook, one size fits all.
Except that it doesn’t.